Posts Tagged ‘How Emotions are Made’

Know Thyself

March 12, 2018

Know Thyself is the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Since that chapter was written, there have been significant advances in the study of the emotions, some of which have been reported in this blog. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain” was revolutionary. Relevant blog posts can be found by entering “Lisa Feldman Barrett” into the search box of the healthy memory blog. The following is taken directly from the post “How Emotions Are Made”:

Dr. Barrett calls this view the theory of constructed emotions.  These emotions are constructed on the basis of our interoceptive environments.  She presents a convincing argument that our emotions are built upon our interpretation of our internal environments, that is analogous to the manner in which we develop an understanding of the external world.

Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that we do not experience the external world directly.  Rather we develop concepts and models on the basis of what our senses receive from the external world.  In other words, emotions are based on what we feel, that is how we interpret what we receive from our interoceptive environment.  Emotions are interpretations of our interoceptive conditions.  In other words we learn our emotional concepts in an analogous manner to how we learn about the external world.  We have an energy budget and this budget affects feelings of hunger and other bodily conditions.

Dr. Barrett provides a personal anecdote to illustrate how constructed emotions work.  When she was a graduate student a fellow male graduate student asked her out at the end of the day.  Although she had no feelings for this guy, she was tired and thought it would be a good way to kill the evening.  While they were dining, she thought she was beginning to fall for him.  Nothing further happened and she went home and fell asleep exhausted.  The next morning she woke up with the flu and remained in bed for several more days.  Apparently she had misinterpreted her interoceptive environment.  What she had originally interpreted as incipient feelings of love, were really incipient feelings of the flue virus.

After that relevant digression, we return to Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence.”

Metamood is a term psychologists use to refer to awareness of one’s emotions, and metacognition refers refers to an awareness of thought process. Self-awareness is not an attention that gets carried away by emotions, overreacting and amplifying what is perceived. Instead, it is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even amidst turbulent emotions. The awareness of emotions is the fundamental emotional competence on which others, such as emotional self-control. build. Self-awareness means being “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about the mood.” Self-awareness can be nonjudgmental or judgmental to include, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I’m thinking good things to cheer up,” or “Don’t think about it.”

The psychologist John Mayer describes three distinctive styles for attending to and dealing with their emotions.

*Self-aware. Aware of their moods as they are having them, these people understandably have some sophistication about their emotional lives. Their clarity about emotions may undergird other personality traits: they are autonomous and sure of their own boundaries, are in good psychological health, and tend to have a positive outlook on life. When they get into a bad mood, they don’t ruminate and obsess about it, and are able to get out of it sooner. In short, their mindfulness helps them manage their emotions.

*Engulfed. These are people who often feel swamped by their emotions and helpless to escape them, as though their moods have taken charge. They are mercurial and not very aware of their feelings, so that they are lost in them rather than having some perspective. As a result, they do little to try to escape bad moods, feeling that they have no control over their emotional life. They feel overwhelmed and emotionally out of control. Such people definitely need to practice mindfulness and meditation, and perhaps consider seeking professional help.

*Accepting. While these people are often clear about what they are feeling, they also tend to be accepting of their moods, and so don’t try to change them. There seem to be two branches of the accepting type: those who are usually in good moods and so have little motivation to change them, and people who, despite the clarity about their moods, are susceptible to bad ones but accept them with a laissez-faire attitude, doing nothing to change them despite their distress—a pattern found among, say, depressed people who are resigned to despair. This latter group should be aware that there are techniques for changing and controlling their moods, should they want to.

It is possible not to have feelings. Psychiatrists call it alexithymia. These people lack words for their feelings. They seem to lack feelings altogether, although this may actually be because of they inability to express emotion rather than from an absence of emotion altogether.

Although no one can as yet say for sure what causes alexithymia, Dr. Sifneos, who coined the term, proposes a disconnection between the limbic system and the neocortex, particularly its verbal centers, which fits well with what we are learning about the emotional brain.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Brain is in the Mind

July 6, 2017

This is the fifth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in that book.

When asked where the mind is located, most people respond that it is in the brain. So most people assume that the locus of thought—the most impressive of human capacities—is in the most sophisticated of human organs, the brain. Is this correct? Consider the following experiment.

This is a simple experiment where participants are asked to push a button with one of their hands to indicate their response. We have no problem with this task and respond in not much more than half second. But if the experiments vary one little detail, a detail that shouldn’t matter if the mind is in the brain, the results changed. The objects were oriented either to the left or to the right. For example, the handle of a watering can be on the right-hand side in half the pictures and on the left-hand side in the other half. If all we’re doing to decide whether the object is upright or upside down is consulting the knowledge stored in our brain about the object’s orientation, then whether the handle is on the left or right should make no difference. But it does. When responding yes with our right hand, we are faster when the handle is on the right than when the handle is on the left. When we are asked to say yes by pressing a button with our left hand, we are faster when the handle is on the left.

Here’s why. A photograph of a utensil with a handle on the right makes it easier to use our right hand. We see the photograph and immediately and unconsciously start organizing our body to interact with the picture object. Even though the handle is a photograph and not real, the handle is calling for our right hand. The fact that our right hand is primed for action makes us faster to respond with it, even to a question about the orientation of the object, which has nothing to do with action. By priming our hand to interact with the object, our body is directly affecting how long it takes us to answer the question. We don’t just pull the answer out of our brain. Instead our body and brain respond in synchrony to the photograph to retrieve an answer.

We use our bodies to think and remember. One study showed that acting out a scene is more effective than other memorization techniques for recalling a scene. Embodiment is a cluster of ideas about the important role the body plays in cognitive processing. Cognition is unified with objects that we’re thinking about and with. When we make music, our thoughts about music and the music we make with out mouths or instruments are part of the same process and highly interdependent. It’s much easier to move our fingers as if we’re playing a guitar if we actually have a guitar, and it’s much easier spell a word or do arithmetic if we write down what we’re thinking. The fact that thought is more effective when it is done in conjunction with the physical world suggests that thought is not a disembodied process that takes place on a slate inside the head. The authors conclude, “Mental activities do not simply occur in the brain. Rather, the brain is only one part of a processing system that also includes the body and other aspects of the world.

Emotional reactions are also memories. Remember the healthy memory blog post on Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her book “How Emotions Are Made” Our emotions are the result of our interpretations of and models based on our interoceptive responses. We learn to interpret our internal bodily responses in an analogous manner to how we build models and interpret the external world.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dougla Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.